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Travellers’ Children in London Fields

June 2, 2011
by the gentle author

Click to buy a signed copy of Colin O’Brien’s book for £10!

It is my pleasure to publish this splendid series of portraits of travellers’ children by Colin O’Brien, now published in a handsome hardback book. They are the result of a remarkable collaboration between a photographer and his subjects, in which the children command the frame with natural authority and strength of personality.  And Colin O’Brien’s masterly photographs make an interesting comparison with Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers of 1912, even though Colin O’Brien had never seen the work of Horace Warner when he set out with his camera through the East End seventy-five years later.

“I came across the travellers whilst I was photographing a deserted warehouse in the London Fields area in 1987. They had parked their caravans in and around Martello St, near the railway arches by the station. This part of Hackney was very run down in the eighties. The streets were littered with rubbish and many of the decaying Victorian terraces were being demolished. The area was neglected and dangerous, with graffiti everywhere.

The travellers were Irish, mostly families with three or four children, living in modern caravans which looked extremely cramped but comfortable. On the first week I started to take one or two Polaroid shots of the children which I gave to them to show their parents. Some of the parents then dressed the children up and sent them out for me to take more pictures.

I continued to take many more images over a period of three weeks and got to know some of the travellers well. They took me into their confidence and trusted me with their children. It was only when I started to print the images that I realised what an amazing set of photographs they were.

When I returned to the site on the fourth week the families had gone. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was – after all, this is what travellers do, they move on. I had no way of contacting them but I was left with an amazing set of pictures.”

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

You may also like to take a look at the Spitalfields Nippers.

17 Responses leave one →
  1. June 2, 2011

    Fabulous pics. I love all the attitudes displayed. I wish the prejudice these young people will face in their lives for being ‘different’ was inverted into admiration for refusing to accept the norm.

  2. Rowena permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Brilliant pictures. They do contrast really well with the earlier Spitalfields Nippers pictures. Makes 1987 seem like another world. Something poignant about these pictures. I’d love to know what happened to these kids and what they’re doing now. Funny how children are often so much betters subjects for photographs than adults as they are less self conscious.

  3. Rhianwen Guthrie permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Unbearably touching. What amazing little creatures they all are…

  4. Juliet permalink
    June 2, 2011

    I clearly remember this-
    One of the caravans parked between the cycle route and the railway arches at the NE corner of London fields. I passed that way every day, on my way to and from work. The washed clothes were hung to dry on the railings at the edge of London Fields, and the cheery lady of the household washed the cycle lane each morning with floral disinfectant!

  5. Ana permalink
    June 3, 2011

    They are really resilient looking children, like they can adapt to anything that comes their way.

  6. June 4, 2011

    These photos are very impressive. They immerse you, once you look at that eyes, you want look at them again and again.

  7. July 16, 2011

    Colin is a brilliant photographer. I have a book of his photos which I bought some time ago at the OXO BUILDING. These ones of the Traveller children are great. What characters!

  8. Paul permalink
    March 26, 2013

    Dear Colin,
    these are wonderfully poignant photos’ and the first portrait of the girl in the woolen dress is indeed resonant and haunting but doesn’t she appear in a happier guise in the 2nd, 4th, 10th and 14th photos’ down? I think it’s her, and if it is, it makes the first photo all the more remarkable.
    I am really looking forward to the exhibition and disappointed that I’ll be out of town on the 29th.
    Kind regards

  9. March 26, 2013

    Lovely pictures, fantastic!!!

  10. Laura Passey permalink
    March 26, 2013

    There is such a rawness to these pictures. Fascinating.

  11. Virginia permalink
    March 26, 2013

    He has definitely captured the spirits of the children. Is spent time in the Finsbury Park section London in the 1970′s ( being a yank was my claim to fame) and was fortunate enough to snap photos of the neighborhood children What separates my shots from these is the relative lack of smiles or clowning around in these children. Could it be because they are in a strange city?

  12. Nic Millington permalink
    March 26, 2013

    These are wonderful pictures that speak powerfully about the lives of all children as well as more specifically Traveller children. I won’t be able to get to the exhibition, but what chance of it touring?

  13. March 26, 2013

    Hi Colin,
    What great work. The pictures are beautiful. I agree with Paul about the little girl in that woolen outfit appearing in the other pictures with another outfit on. It looks like her – and I’m hoping it’s her, because she’s smiling in some of the others. Phew.
    I wish the exhibition were coming to Montreal as there is a large Irish community here.

  14. lisa permalink
    April 1, 2013

    i am related by marraige to a lot of the children in these photos ,, a lot of them are still living in and around london on gypsy sites all married with children of there own

  15. Helen permalink
    July 8, 2020

    Hi I’m related the people in these photos also I was they when these pictures got took Ive also got a photo someone send me I can’t really remember what age I think I was 7 year old I’m Ute it was kings cross London I really those time

  16. Helen permalink
    July 8, 2020

    Hi sorry I sent a comment I never checked the spelling I was around when these Photos got took the 3rd one down is my Cousin Margaret I remember the man coming out and wanted to take pictures of us I’ve got 1 here he took also we were staying in kings cross London at time good old days

  17. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    December 23, 2023

    my heart breaks for those children. Adult expressions on kids. Esp the girls. I feel they have been used in bad ways by men already in their young lives. Its in their faces. I wonder where they are.

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